The San Jose Sharks have been struggling lately. It has been a difficult start to 2015 for the perennial playoff team. Since January 1st, the Sharks are 10-12-3 and an even worse 3-8-2 since the beginning of February. The poor play may shape the decisions GM Doug Wilson makes at the trade deadline. The Sharks have used a strategy of trading older players during the trade deadline and getting back younger players over the last couple of years. That approach has put goaltender Antti Niemi on the trade block for the last few weeks.
SAN JOSE: @KKurzCSN Reports #SJSharks goalie and pending UFA Antti Niemi is available for trade pic.twitter.com/2EjGRcQrUz
— NHL INSIDE EXPERTS (@NHLinsideexpert) February 19, 2015
The struggles for the Sharks make a trade of the pending UFA much more sensible, but San Jose is going to run into some issues in regards to trying to trade him.
The first problem is that the Sharks don’t exactly have a ready-made replacement in-house. Since coming to San Jose as a free agent following a Stanley Cup winning season in Chicago in 2010, Niemi has played in 282 games for San Jose, all of them as the starter. The Sharks have played a total of 357 games since the start of the 2010-11 season. That means that Antti has started 79% of the games the Sharks have played since he has joined the team.
This year, that number is slightly lower at 75%. Still, when your top goalie is in the net for three out of every four games, he’s either tearing it up with his play or you have a weak backup.
Niemi’s play hasn’t been lights out, but has it been a problem for the Sharks? His save percentage is the exact same this season as it was last season (.913) and just off his career mark with San Jose at .916. His goals against has risen this season though, from 2.39 to 2.62. How does a goalie’s save percentage stay the same but his goals against per game go up?
There is an answer and it isn’t all on Niemi:
|SAN JOSE RANKS|
|Year||Shots Against per Game||Average Penalty Minutes per Game|
|2013-14||27.8 (6th)||9.0 (5th)|
|2014-15||29.9 (20th)||9.3 (12th)|
The Sharks are giving up two more shots per game this season compared to last and their average penalty minutes per game is up as well. Neither jump is huge, but connected to each other, it’s possible to assume that Niemi isn’t just seeing more shots, but higher quality shots in each game. So he’s saving them at pretty much the same rate, but more goals are being scored because of the shot increase.
With Niemi playing pretty similar hockey as he did last season and comparable to his San Jose career, he’s been the Sharks’ unquestioned number one goalie. Mainly because they haven’t really developed a backup. Alex Stalock is the current number two, but he has only played 42 NHL games over the span of the last four seasons. He was good last year for San Jose in 24 games, with a .932 sv% and a goals against under two (1.97). This year hasn’t been so kind. The save percentage is lower, as would be expected, but at .899 it’s below average. This has in turn raised his goals against to 2.85. Those aren’t the numbers of an NHL starter, unless your name is Mike Smith. At 27, Stalock may be what he is, and that is a career backup.
The Sharks also have Troy Grosenick (25) and Harri Sateri (25) in the system. Grosenick has two NHL starts this year, a 45 save shutout against the Hurricanes on November 16th and a loss to Buffalo on the 18th where he stopped 10 of 13 shots. Sateri has yet to make an NHL appearance.
If San Jose trades Niemi, they may be throwing in the towel on making the playoffs this season. That may happen anyway, given how things have gone recently.
Ottawa now have a better chance (15%) of making the playoffs than San Jose (14%). pic.twitter.com/2SKg2HTPRq
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 1, 2015
But if San Jose isn’t worried about the playoffs, they have one more problem in trying to trade their starting goaltender: no one may want him.
|Western Conference||Starting Goalie||Eastern Conference||Starting Goalie|
|Nashville||Pekka Rinne||Montreal||Carey Price|
|Anaheim||Frederik Andersen||Islanders||Jaroslav Halak|
|St. Louis||Brian Elliott||Rangers||Cam Talbot|
|Chicago||Corey Crawford||Tampa Bay||Ben Bishop|
|Winnipeg||Michael Hutchinson||Detroit||Jimmy Howard|
|Vancouver||Ryan Miller||Pittsburgh||Marc Andre Fleury|
|Minnesota||Devan Dubnyk||Washington||Brendan Holtby|
|Calgary||Jonas Hiller||Boston||Tuukka Rask|
The top playoff teams in both conferences are pretty well set as far as the crease goes. Anaheim is a slim possibility if they worry about Andersen and backup John Gibson’s relative youth. The Jets may feel that Niemi is better for them than Ondrej Pavelec as insurance if Hutchinson’s game goes south as the pressure rises. Miller may be hurt, but Vancouver isn’t adding another goalie to their full carousel.
Which leaves one extreme possibility – the New York Rangers. Cam Talbot has been great for the Blueshirts in the wake of Henrik Lundqvist’s injury. If King Henrik can’t come back, Niemi would be a good, solid insurance policy for a Rangers team that is clearly going for it. It’s doubtful that New York gives up more assets for a rental like Antti Niemi, but if they are worried about Henrik coming back, it would make sense.
The Sharks don’t have a lot of options in selling their goalie. They may have to take a reduced price to move Niemi before he walks as a free agent. Maybe the Rangers wait them out to the very end and get insurance on Stanley Cup or bust trade season. Perhaps some other team with a sudden urge to keep up with the Jones enters the fray. Or maybe, when the dust settles after the deadline passes, the Sharks still have their goalie between the pipes because no one else could use him more.